June 2017 Quick Capsules

The Wolfpack
Curiously distended and aimless, despite the inherently compelling and dramatic subject matter. At times it almost feels as if Moselle is stalling or simply too endeared with an observational mode of filmmaking, content to simply record the scattered observations and retellings of her subjects rather than provide any sort of motivating force – aside from, that is, her actual physical presence with her camera. This dovetails, unfortunately, with one of the other significant aspects that was truly unexpected on my part: the particular brand of cinephilia that the Angulos’ exhibit as depicted in the film is far more elemental and basic than I had anticipated. Moselle shows shockingly little interest in it except when it is deemed essential to the story (the movie theater visit, a reenactment here or there) and otherwise abandons it. The Wolfpack has its own small share of pathos, but otherwise feels rather inert and lifeless.

Troll 2
Indefensible in damn near every conventional way, and yet Troll 2 has a strong tinge of the unassailable to it. There is something to the general competence of the technical aspects – some extraordinarily odd camera choices, editing, and special effects aside – that casts all of the totally incompetent plotting and acting in a different light. Not to say that I view this as some sort of high-trash masterpiece, as it manages to become dull roughly an hour into its ninety-minute runtime, but it remains so consummately dedicated to its weirdness, its transparently demented and malicious environment, and its bozo logic that it occasionally becomes mesmerizing.

Tabu
Appeals so greatly to that sense of the elemental tale as old as time that I seem to gravitate so strongly towards, and yet I think that Tabu is putatively something that does not fall into that. By way of parallel construction, Murnau sets the idyllic island and the hustle and bustle of a more modern way of life in direct opposition and manages to find more than a little bit of resemblance. But what matters most, and what the lovers on the lam seem to miss, is the sense of community and ritual among the beaches and the palm-frond villages, and the evident guilt and fear that they hold becomes so much more than just forbidden love under the watchful eye of Murnau. They attempt to resist nature itself, swimming against the tide of time to no avail. Such a doomed struggle is handled with the most simple of techniques, and yet a whole world is alchemically conjured in the dissolve from a written language to English, in the refusal to use an intertitle. In the land of Murnau, the emotions howl just as strongly as the waves.

To the Wonder
Putatively, this is one of Malick’s most modestly pitched films – a love story centering on a couple, with a priest in the periphery and a former flame even further from the center – very likely the least ponderous film he has made since Badlands. But almost everything else about it feels like a kind of next step for Malick, albeit one that looks back. Every character feels like a variation of one of his previous characters: Kurylenko to Pocahontas, Tatiana to Manz, Affleck to Jack etc. and Malick’s style pushes Lubezki’s rushing camera movements even further. What is different is the lack of any inhibition, as his characters dance around each other, coming together and breaking apart as quickly. Kurylenko’s status as an outsider seems key here – as does Bardem, their voiceovers in their “native” languages are among the loveliest aspects of To the Wonder – something only deepened by the sense of this vaguely defined but distinctly modern and American milieu. Unlike Knight of Cups or Song to Song there is no society to be commented on; this culture simply exists, much in the same way that it has for decades and as it likely will for years to come. So what changes are the relationships, the people as they grow and wane in their passion, in their sense of inner life, something which Malick explores with an aching, unmistakably poignant passion.

Knight of Cups (rewatch)
Several orders of magnitude more fractured and aimless than what I can recall from the rest of Malick’s oeuvre, for a number of fairly apparent reasons. Almost certainly the main problem is built into the intertitle-separated structure. This wasn’t an issue for the only other Malick I can remember having clear delineations such as this, the extended cut of The New World, but where that movie even gained a hint of the novelistic, this film feels like it loses something in the blitz of characters that remain fairly confined to their own segments. It certainly doesn’t help that Bale’s presence is (whether through his performance or Malick’s realization of it) near-absent in ways that do and don’t feel productive. And the spiritual allegories here feel unmoored from the moment in which Rick lives, foisted upon the narrative rather than organically developed.

But it must be said, few directors could handle such an unwieldy, risky text nearly as well as the deft hand of Malick. His conjuring of awe, of the lightness of movement, character, and narrative is almost wholly sui generis; the signposts may be clear (an earthquake as the inciting incident, the virginal woman as redeemer) but they feel both otherworldly and grounded, rendered in pristine shimmering that flows in the light and dark. The result is nothing short of awe, something that Knight of Cups holds more of than it should have any right to possess.

John From
I’m tempted to separate this neatly into halves, the first being an exceedingly well-developed hangout film and the second a considerably dreamier and fantastical endeavor. But to do so would rob John From of its more impressive distinguishing traits, particularly its actual justification for this switch. The pivot isn’t truly a pivot at all, but a rather organic (literally) metamorphosis, as the film evolves before the viewer’s very eyes in ways both expected and unexpected, visible and invisible. Much of the credit must go to the immensely fluid and always engrossing guiding hand of João Nicolau; the closest analogue in my limited knowledge is Linklater (at least for the first half), but his sense is more rigorous but with the same sense of looseness, containing a plentitude of rather dramatic tracking shots. Utterly pleasurable.

The Day He Arrives (rewatch)
Went into this particular rewatch with all of the praise and love that this receives from some of the most fervent Hong admirers in mind (especially Kevin B. Lee’s video essay), but that can only account for some of my drastically altered perception and immensely greater love for this film. The Day He Arrives feels like, among the seven Hongs I’ve seen so far, the clearest summation of what makes his body of work so immensely special and beguiling. Even though it feels in some ways like an oddity – the black-and-white, the pointed use of voiceover – it manages to marry the immensely playful structure with a certain looseness, a use of dialogue that at first glance seems somewhat unrelated to the plight of the central character. Of course, nothing is throwaway and everything is important in Hong’s world; the slightest bit of difference in who enters or doesn’t enter the frame, the change in the type of zoom he uses, the reappearance of figures in entirely different contexts. And it moves along with such grace, such melancholy drive, pinballing off of slightly different characterizations and conversations, that it achieves its own kind of sublime.

Daughter of the Nile
Moves with astonishing fluidity (in the span of a single cut) between a slightly narcotized, dreamy feeling among nocturnal settings and the comparatively harsh, glaring light of day, but what remains predominant is the extent of Hou’s reserved intimacy. Though his camera floats far less than I expected, his locked down frames consistently stun, bringing the viewer closer with a medium shot than most filmmakers could accomplish with a long shot, and the mood remains so warm, even as the characters fall closer and closer into the depths of the modern world. Perhaps the story is too small for its own good, but the scenes in the night school and KFC (admittedly, the ones I was most interested in) act as marvelous embellishments, and the commitment in Daughter of the Nile is apparent from beginning to elegiac end.

Nerve
More than a little worrying and dangerous, simply by virtue of the degree to which it displays and even glorifies the culture that forms its center. Despite the supposed objections that Nerve has towards Nerve, there is a very certain glamor given to the foolish daredevils, a seductiveness in the admittedly gorgeous oversaturated lights and the slow-motion shots of its heroes walking through crowds of admirers. This extends to the fantasia of the Internet, all touchscreens, flashy pans, and flowing data, something which perhaps wisely extends to the “real world,” which itself is a series of disembodied streets and unmoored building. Someone much more dedicated to this could easily make a case for this as high art (certainly there’s something interesting in its brazen commitment to a despicable culture) but I am content to both appreciate and feel wary at this, with whiplash regularity.

Split (rewatch)
It was much more apparent to me on this viewing just how meticulous and unnerving Shyamalan’s direction was, and I do think I originally did it a disservice by questioning how much of the film truly functioned as a thriller. For this does truly feel like a tightly coiled spring that expertly unravels over the course of the film; even Betty Buckley’s scenes carry a charge with how unsettling Kevin’s intentions remain. And of course, McAvoy and Taylor-Joy hold the screen, he with his multivalent, rapidly switching personas and she with a hypnotic intensity, projecting fear and will with the same glance.

Game of Death
It’s difficult to ascertain whether Game of Death benefits or suffers from the inclusion of actual Bruce Lee footage. On the one hand, it substantially raises the level of overall interest in this otherwise half-hearted effort, and even makes the viewer scour the other segments for other moments that actually feature the legendary martial artist. But it also highlights just how shoddy many of the other fight scenes feel, which themselves seem nothing short of brilliant (thanks to Sammo Hung’s choreography) when placed next to stiffly performed, rote conspiracy machinations. The film certainly improves as it becomes more and more about Billy Lo’s revenge, but when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has more screen presence in one scene than the Bruce Lee doppelgangers do in the entire film, it spells trouble.

The Great Wall
Explicitly calls itself a legend at the very start, which Zhang Yimou uses as essentially a carte blanche to create his own alternate version of Imperial China. And like a legend, The Great Wall feels almost too barebones, moving from one great feat or hurried conversation to another, with little time to truly delve into the characters. But the actors all perform their parts ably, and this truly is a kind of showcase for Zhang, a fluidly grandiose and thrillingly fun series of daredevil tricks, using more in one introductory battle than many would in entire films. There is much power to be found in the well-timed close-up or the particular body movement, and like many of the other actually competent and sometimes genius directors Zhang realizes this, and uses it to no small effect in this flawed, endearing work.

The Unbelievable Truth
Nervier and looser than Trust, perhaps for good reason – even more than that film, The Unbelievable Truth is as compassionate and playful with its peripheral characters as it is with the duo at its center, and Hartley uses them to great, hilarious effect. Of course, there is a tension, borne not only out of Audry’s apocalyptic obsessions but from the inescapable feeling of patterns repeating themselves, bits of dialogue and situations playing out over and over, which feels comedic sometimes and tragic at others. And there is catharsis, melancholy, vulgarity, and connections broken and found aplenty, almost too much for one to bear. But it is glorious and true, beautiful in its overt yet unassuming way.

Stranger by the Lake
Was most astonished by how much inherent feeling Guiraudie manages to wrest from the anxiety-ridden climate that eventually develops in Stranger by the Lake. The cruising scene is depicted with an unspoken matter-of-fact attitude, completely unapologetic yet almost labyrinthian in the expanse of the woods (which contrasts with the wide-open, exposed vision of the beach), in a way that feels utterly refreshing. But even more gratifying are the distinct, discrete patterns of behavior, the locked down, tightly wound direction of Guiraudie, and above all the characters, particularly Henri. He radiates a gruff sort of care, a longing that feels cut from the same cloth as that of the various gay men looking for connection, and serves as a kind of conduit, a balancing point between the simple carnal pleasures and the sinister, the suspenseful, the genuinely shocking.

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